The Real Meaning Of A Purpose-Driven Organization

According to data, two-thirds of Americans prefer eco-friendly brands. And 71 percent of consumers prefer buying from firms aligned with positive values. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It turns out that customers also want to buy from enterprises that have some type of underlying mission or purpose.

Defining this, though, can sometimes be a challenge. Becoming a purpose-driven organization can be a little confusing, especially if you’ve spent the majority of your career driving profit.

In this post, we take a look at the concept of being purpose driven, what it actually means, and how you can implement it in your organization. Remember, people want more than a sense of purpose in their personal lives. They also want their shopping decisions to have an impact as well. And that’s where you come in.

Is Purpose What You Sell?

Some businesses fall into the trap of believing that their purpose is what they sell. But that doesn’t really get to the bottom of what it means to have purpose. Sure, providing products and services could bring the enterprise closer to its goals, but there’s more to it than that.

Take Tesla as an example. You might think that the company’s purpose is to sell cars. But the moment you dig a little deeper, you see that there’s a lot more to the organization than that. The cars are just a means to an end.

Tesla believes that it has a responsibility to save the planet. And one of the ways it hopes to do this is by switching people from gas vehicles to electric alternatives. The cars themselves are incidental (even though they are pretty good), to the overall mission of the company. That’s why Tesla is also investing in things like solar roofs, solar panels, and large utility-scale batteries. It wants to slash the total carbon output of humanity to preserve the planet for future generations.

Other companies provide even starker examples. WD-40, for instance, is a single product brand that sells a specific type of lubricating oil. There’s nothing particularly unique or innovative about the product – plenty of alternatives exist. But that doesn’t seem to matter to the company’s customer base. They remain loyal, regardless of the competition.

How is this possible? It all comes down to the way WD-40 builds its brand. Instead of focusing on the product, it highlights the “togetherness” of its customer base, making everyone feel like a big, happy family. If you use WD-40, you’re part of an unwritten fraternity of people across the world who know exceptional lubricants when they see them.

Is Purpose Your Mission Statement?

When trying to define their purpose, many organisations will simply rewrite their mission statement in the hope that that will work. It won’t. Mission and purpose of two separate things.

In general, mission statements talk about what the company would like to achieve. So, for instance, most banks might write something like “become the market leader in the segment.” It sounds exciting to investors and their brokers, but it doesn’t do much for customers and employees. What does market leadership even mean?

A purpose is something a little deeper than that. It’s essentially the fun and joy that the company is attempting to bring to the world. Take the Cadbury’s chocolate company, for instance, one of the most successful brands of all time. The company’s mission is to sell confectionery in markets across the world. But the aim of the brand is to bring customers joy.

The way this works is interesting. It’s not about selling units or making profits – that’s all stuff for the shareholders. At the company-wide level, the purpose is to bring a little levity to people through the comfort their products offer.

Can you see the difference here between mission and purpose? The purpose is the basic outcome you want from your organisation, with everything else stripped away. Cadbury’s, for instance, would still be a perfectly decent chocolate company, even if it wasn’t the market leader or making millions of dollars in profits every year.

Is Purpose Social Responsibility? 

Many innovative brands, including The Beachbody Company, include social responsibility in the way they do business. They are looking for ways to make their operations more sustainable and enhance the community around them. And that’s a great thing. But is it the same as being purpose-driven? Arguably not.

Some organizations get actively involved in the community – and that’s great. But many simply take a chunk of their profits and then hand them to a charity, reducing their tax bill at the same time. And that’s not the same. It’s not actually social responsibility at all – it’s just a donation.

Social responsibility only becomes purpose when it forms an integral part of the firm’s operational model.

For instance, let’s say that you run a fizzy drinks company and you believe in making the world a healthier place. You could, for instance, invest a chunk of your profits into providing sports education to children. But that would be like taking from Peter to pay Paul. Your products are causing children to become obese, and you’re then using the money you make to attempt to help them lose weight. It’s pointless, disingenuous and unethical.

The alternative is to build a brand around a purpose-driven operational model that makes sense. For instance, that same fizzy drinks company could rebrand and start selling smoothies made of veggies that would actually support weight loss and create a healthier society.

There are all sorts of companies that are now including positive purposes into their business models. For instance, some clothing brands are now using pineapple fibers in their garments and shoes. These are hard-wearing but will still break down in landfill or compost.

Other brands are experimenting with disposable phone covers. The idea here is to find ways to make them serve their intended purpose and then break down in the ground once the user finishes with them.

How To Become A Purpose-Driven Organization

Ultimately, then, what do you have to do to become a purpose-driven enterprise?

As always, the answer is surprisingly simple. Just ask yourself what you’re working so hard to achieve.

Take SpaceX, for instance. It’s mission is clear: to put a million people on Mars by 2050. But the company’s purpose is something deeper: to make humans a multi-planet species and “preserve the light of consciousness in the universe.”

When you understand the purpose, you see that the mission is incidental. If Venus was a suitable planet for habitation, SpaceX would be sending people there instead.

As an enterprise, be honest about what you’re fighting for. Ask yourself why you’re working so hard and what you want to achieve. In many cases, you’ll come up with something specific and powerful – usually the reason you started your business in the first place.

Having a purpose in your organization is critical for keeping staff motivated long-term. When you look at what really gets people out of bed in the morning, you invariably find that a sense of purpose is at the top of the list. Yes – money is important. But there’s more to it than that. Financial rewards are only a small part of the overall value proposition for employees.

Another way of thinking about it is this: people don’t want to work for a company, they want to feel like a valuable part of a tribe.

Why do you think people operate in companies anyway? It’s not a random invention of the industrial revolution. It’s something that taps into deep and ancient aspects of our psyche. As humans, we’ve always worked together. And so being a part of a group just feels natural.

But for it to feel satisfying, there has to be a purpose behind it. At the end of a person’s career, they need to be able to look back at it and know that they did something worthwhile.

The Cost Of Failure

Lastly, purpose-driven companies always highlight the cost of failure. They point out what will happen (usually bad) if they don’t achieve their goals.

Just look at some of the dire predictions coming from the mouth of Elon Musk. He believes that climate change is going to be catastrophic and that’s why he’s working so hard now to change the auto industry.

Charities will also sometimes point out the costs of failure. For instance, some will tell donors what will happen if they don’t raise their target funds by a specific date. They highlight the number of lives they could have saved if they had reached their fundraiser goals.

As you can see from this post, the concept of purpose is a little slippery. But, like the concept of strategy, you can break it down into easily-digested chunks. Purpose is the thing you’re fighting for – what’s making you get out of bed in the morning. It’s something beyond just you, your team or your company. It’s a worthwhile thing that transcends all of that and, hopefully, achieves something profoundly positive in the world.

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